Outside of the Souls series, we couldn’t name you a more influential modern game than Slay the Spire. We seem to reference it every other week, and have to put a pound in the pot each time. Often it will be because a similar deckbuilder has landed on our desks, but it’s just as likely to manifest in some borrowed mechanics: the familiar loops of randomly acquiring cards and then fine-tuning your deck.
Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition definitely worships at the altar of Slay the Spire. It’s infatuated in the more direct sense, being a deckbuilder by genre, and looking – and often playing – much the same. To be fair to it, it has a lot of ideas of its own, swapping out pieces of the chassis and bringing some of its own identity. But in doing so, the results are so much slower and ponderous.
Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition strives for uniqueness through its approach to discarding. If you’ve played a card game, from Pokemon to Magic: The Gathering, you will have a library of cards that, when used from your hand, tend to end up in some form of graveyard or discard pile. More often than not, that’s the end of them. But Deck of Ashes plays around with what this pile means and how you get cards back from it.
A card in the discard pile stays there. If you want it back, you will need to pay a cost. In-game, this is often called ‘straining’ (yeah, we couldn’t get our heads out of the scatological gutter either), using an Ash Pact card that will charge you an amount of life points to shuffle them back into your deck. If cards remain in your ‘Deck of Ashes’ or discard pile at the end of combat, you will need to ‘Renew’ them. But that’s a cost, too: you only get so many renewal points, and you might want to spend them on healing lost health instead.
It’s the biggest change to the Slay the Spire formula. Using cards feels like it has greater consequences than in any other deckbuilder. Use that killer card and you’ll have to pay to get it back. It adds a strategic layer that wasn’t there before.
It’s also a party pooper, which is our common criticism of Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition: it feels like the designers have a knotty, interesting design idea, but the player has to pay the price for their enjoyment of the game. Deck of Ashes is on our shoulder, tutting and saying “are you sure you want to play that cool card? It might cost you”. So, often we didn’t.
Paying for cards after each match is also a slow, laborious process. We don’t want to be housekeeping our deck after every match. It’s why we play card and board games on console: an AI can do the heavy-lifting for us. But that’s not the case here.
We felt a creeping sense of boredom from combat, and it took us a while to pinpoint why. It’s not in the combat cards themselves: they are well designed, and there’s some nice synergy to be had here. It’s in the one-way nature of battling, and the weary balancing.
We say one-way because Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition has decided to chuck out any cards that react to the enemy’s attacks. Most often in deckbuilders like this, you will check what the enemy is doing, and then defend/block or anticipate the attack in some form. Here, the emphasis is very heavily on doing your own thing: there’s no block mechanic really, and you’re mostly just adding stacks on the enemy and looking to deliver the greatest amount of damage in a turn. Meanwhile, the opposing zombie or eldritch horror is plinking you with tiny, unblockable attacks. The problem with this approach is that you’re doing the same thing every match; you’re not truly adapting to the enemy. And that gets tiresome.
Plus the balancing feels too safe. Enemies do miniscule damage but have large amounts of life points, so they’re sponges that need far too many turns to kill. It’s only the enemies that tuck unwanted cards into your deck (‘ashes’) that pose a threat, and that’s only because of Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition’s other debilitating design decision, which is that these cards stay in your deck persistently. You can be having a fantastic run, come across a creature that finds a chink in your defences, and suddenly you’re laden with cards that dilute your deck to the point of making it utterly terrible. These one-game swings get frustrating. At least you can leave a few of these cards in the ‘Deck of Ashes’ and refuse to renew them, we suppose.
Outside of combat, there’s an absolute metric ton of interlocking systems and ways to progress. A camp sits in the middle of a spiderweb of location nodes, and it’s at this camp that you can spend various resources you acquire to upgrade your avatar. It’s your choice: upgrade your cards, buy recipes for cards, make cards from those recipes, buy traits, pay to heal and so, so much more. It’s bewildering at first, with more resource pools than you can shake a fibula at.
To be fair to Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition, this portion of the game is done well… with a single caveat. Let’s do the caveat first: you don’t simply ‘win’ cards in Deck of Ashes. You win recipes, and then have to make your way to a camp to create cards from them. We’d love a chat with whoever thought this was a good idea. It completely ruins the gratification of winning a match, particularly if you’re miles from a camp. One of the greatest joys of a deckbuilder is immediately folding a killer card into the deck, and here you don’t even get a taste of that joy.
Otherwise, there’s so much to do. Even now, we’re flustered just thinking about how we would spend 300-or-so coins, feeling the pang of analysis-paralysis. But it’s a positive: it gives plenty of opportunities to finetune a specific strategy, and min-maxers will love it.
Outside of the camp is the game map, and this is the other major deviation from the genre. There’s no linear path here. Instead, you’re free to move from node to node on a sprawling map, choosing to step into encounters, events, dive into dungeons and open chests (if you have the keys). But – and here comes the toot-toot of that party pooper – the change brings less fun, rather than more. You see, the map begins to feel more like a jail than a space to explore, as you travel back and forth over the same nodes, waiting for the boss to appear. This boss gates access to the next chapter of the story, but will only turn up after you’ve wasted enough time, and boy does it feel like wasting it.
Presumably, the designers felt like this was a race-against-the-clock, perfecting your deck so that the boss didn’t one-hit you. But it never felt like that. Our deck improved so minutely, thanks to the love of recipes over new cards, and the boss turned up far too frigging late, like we were waiting for Godot. The balancing was off again: Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition is far too conservative and worries about imbalance. If it let us ramp up our deck with abandon, then these sequences would be so much more satisfying. In the end it felt like waiting for a late bus.
There’s a good chance that we’re being more unfair than most on Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition. We’re the reviewer who tends to pick up the deckbuilders, because we have a photo of Slay the Spire on our desk and kiss it before going to bed at night. We’re big fans of the genre, so we might be more demanding than the average. If you’re new to the genre and have fewer expectations, or love to take your time with a deckbuilder, then you might want to dial up the score a notch or two.
But, to our tastes, Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition feels like a sub-par card game. It’s a deckbuilder with the fun sucked out of it. Gone is the sense of imbalance, replaced by a timid, conservative beigeness. Out too is speed, randomness, the joy of getting a killer card and the sublime thrill of ridiculous synergy. It’s a deckbuilder that just about stays afloat, but when so much has been jettisoned to get to that point, you wonder whether the journey’s worth it at all.
You can buy Deck of Ashes: Complete Edition from the Xbox Store